When thinking of criminal offenses, it’s easy to list the most glaring examples like assault or theft, or perhaps speeding or trespassing. But something that probably doesn’t come to mind, for obvious reasons, is the crime of not sufficiently watering one’s lawn, licensing a dog or cat, or parking a car incorrectly in front of one’s own home. Yet, these offenses are commonly charged as criminal misdemeanors across Utah.
It’s true, the dear old neighbor lady down the street might just be a convicted criminal.
To help solve this statewide problem, Representative Jefferson Moss sponsored House Bill 202 which contained our proposal to stop overcriminalization from occurring on a local level. The Utah legislature unanimously passed the bill into law during the 2020 legislative session.
This change to the law requires local governments to stop charging ordinance violations as criminal misdemeanors unless they rise to the level of a nuisance, and they are a threat to the health or safety of an individual. This will ensure that low level violations, such as allowing the family cat to lounge in the front yard, will no longer be prosecuted as a criminal offense in most scenarios. If an individual is a repeat offender, the law allows local governments to ratchet up the charge to a misdemeanor after three prior citations have been issued. But as a safeguard, the law also requires cities to give a person 14 days before issuing each citation to ensure that a person has sufficient time to resolve the issue.
Under the status quo, many cities allow their code enforcement officers to issue daily citations until a problem is fixed or attempted to be fixed. And those citations often come with a hefty fine. Even if a person is out of town or doesn’t have time to immediately fix the problem, they could end up in a troubling situation with criminal charges and thousands of dollars of court debt for an underlying violation that wasn’t causing actual harm to anyone.
Many cities, towns and counties across Utah have a default penalty of a Class B misdemeanor for most offenses in their local code. This carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and $1,000 in fines. It’s safe to say that most people are not going to jail for these offenses, and because that’s the case, there’s no reason to charge them as misdemeanors in the first place. In fact, according to data Libertas Institute obtained, most Utahns charged with misdemeanors for low level ordinance violations are simply going online to pay the fine, which is technically a guilty plea. This leaves them with a criminal record which could negatively impact their future employment and housing opportunities.
Consider the case of the Smith family of Heber who were surprised to find a letter summoning them to court on three separate misdemeanor charges stemming from an incident of their dog escaping earlier that year. The dog harmed no one, but because it was “at large,” didn’t have a rabies shot, and wasn’t properly licensed, the Smiths faced three separate criminal charges. After driving over an hour to fight the charges in court, the judge dropped the charges. But the fact that those serious penalties loomed over their heads, resulting in a worried family and wasted time in a courtroom, remains unsettling.
House Bill 202 now ensures that Utahns aren’t made criminals over low level ordinance violations. It’s a great change to the law that reaches an area of criminal justice reform that is often overlooked: introducing people into the criminal system for petty offenses. And because the bill passed, thousands of Utahns can be held accountable without the threat of being turned into a criminal.